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Nightmare Katrina

Editorial for Sept. 8, 2005

On Sept. 2, four days after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast area, National Guard convoys finally reached stranded survivors in the heart of New Orleans. Why did it take so long?

Perhaps the biggest tragedy with what is happening in the Gulf Coast, and the city of New Orleans in particular, is that the crisis was accurately predicted by emergency management specialists. Yet still, our government was not prepared to deal with the reality.

Consultants have long anticipated what would transpire if the pumps keeping water out of New Orleans (much of which is actually below sea level) failed or if the levees protecting the city were breached.

With a big city, built below sea level, kept dry by pumps and dikes, it's absurd for anyone to say they could not anticipate that a disaster such as this could happen.

Yet on Sept. 1, President Bush said: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

The New Orleans Times Picayune, the city's daily newspaper, published a series of article in 2002 detailing what would be likely to happen in the event of the failure of the city's levees. With eerie foresight, the newspaper stories predicted that 200,000 people, perhaps more, would be unable or unwilling to evacuate before a hurricane hit; that thousands would be trapped and killed in flooding; that relief personnel would not be able to get to people needing help because roads and bridges would be knocked out. The articles even predicted that the Superdome would be used as an emergency shelter.

The nightmare we're seeing unfold has been exacerbated by the reality that tens of thousands of our National Guard troops -- a vital first line of help in dealing with natural disasters -- are stationed in Iraq with their supplies and equipment and are unavailable to help.

One story about this anguishing aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has been overlooked so far: Imagine the pain of the National Guard soldiers who live in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama, but are now serving in Iraq. With communication cut off to many areas of these states, they may not even know if their loved ones back home are safe, if their home is gone, if their friends are out of danger. The emotions they are dealing with must be especially intense right now, and they deserve even more compassion and support through this time.

Sadly, political factors added to the seriousness of this crisis: the impact of budget cuts at the national level in recent years probably contributed to the devastation. With war in Iraq and tax cuts at the same time, something had to give, and infrastructure projects have been one of the areas cut. For years, Louisiana officials and representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have requested, and sometimes begged, for funding to upgrade the pumps and levees serving New Orleans, but this has been one of the items getting its budget slashed each year. Examples: $69 million was provided for drainage projects in New Orleans in 2001, but that amount was cut to $36.5 million for this year. Money to upgrade the crucial levees around Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans got $10 million in 2001, but that was reduced to $5.7 million this year. The message: Sorry, there are more important things to deal with (tax cuts?), your levees can wait.

Even the decision at the federal level to submerge the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security has had a negative impact, because federal funds, and the focus of federal officials, has been on terrorist attacks much more than on natural disasters. As a result, planning to handle natural disasters has suffered. In March 2004, this is what James Lee Witt, the former director of FEMA, had to say about putting FEMA under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security: "I am extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded."

We are now seeing a bitter harvest of decisions such as these. We have witnessed American citizens struggling to survive in one of our great cities. For days, Americans had to shelter next to rotting corpses. People were dying before help was sent to reach them. Armed gangs were roaming the streets, reverting to a pack mentality.

This is a heartbreaking tragedy on so many levels. As with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, America will never be quite the same after Hurricane Katrina.



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